For most of my life, I’ve been an emotional eater, soothing myself with sugary, starchy, fatty foods. I’m highly sensitive, which means I feel everything – both the good and the bad – intensely. Living at 120 watts can feel vibrant and alive.
It can also feel scary. Strong emotions are often uncomfortable, so I try to protect myself by pushing away my emotional experience rather than feeling it. Food comes in very handy here.
I talk with many, many other highly sensitive women who also use food as a buffer. In this case, overeating is an example of fight or flight. When life gets too vulnerable to bear – when it gets painful and stressful and hard – we flee into food. This attempt to care for ourselves is not something to use as ammunition against our own hearts, something about which to judge ourselves.
Emotional eating is based in kindness – it’s natural (and normal!) to want pleasure, to try and soothe a hurt, and to want to feel good – especially if you’re feeling so much all of the time. We eat not because we hate ourselves, but because we’re hurting, and we want to make it go away. Food is a fabulous buffer – we can make the most excruciating pain subside, oh, for about 10 minutes.
And yet…we all know it doesn’t last, and it won’t work. The pain returns, so we keep eating in an attempt to feel better. The suffering proliferates. Now we have the original pain plus the pain of overeating: the guilt, shame, and feeling of deficiency – what’s wrong with me? Ouch. Ouch.
We eat because the converse – caring for our hurts without food – sounds really, really scary.
There is something so tender, so beautiful, so courageous about caring for our emotions; gentling ourselves so that we can meet life’s pain head on. I know this asks much of us. Instead of running into food we run right to the hurt – the tender, aching place – and we bandage it with compassion.
To those of you who think “I couldn’t do that,” this is what I would say: you are stronger than you know. We think the hurt will overwhelm us. We’re afraid the pain will overcome us.
But our hearts are so much bigger. Oh, brave, brave warrior: you are strong enough to feel your pain.
The only way that I’ve found peace with food – and trust me, I’ve tried everything! – is to stop running from my pain and to sit with it. I sit with it by feeling the ouch, caring for it, and offering myself compassion. Amazingly, this changes everything. The hurts soften in my care. They move. They flow. The cravings flow, too. The pain doesn’t last. It never does.
This astonishes me over and over again.
But more than that, I am changed. Whenever I offer myself kindness, I come back home. I build a sanctuary that I can return to, again and again and again. My safety doesn’t rest in the shifting winds of my emotions – or my life experience – but in the surety of my own heart. I trust. I find peace.
This astonishes me too.
Earlier this week, I was standing in my kitchen, perusing my pantry for a treat – okay I was dying for a treat – and drooling over my homemade granola bars. You know that I stay clear of sugar – an addictive food for me. So you may be surprised by my insistent thoughts about why I should shove one (or four) in my mouth. Here’s a sample:
“They’re honey sweetened. There’s not that much sugar in them. This would taste sooooo good. You’ve had an exhausting few weeks; you deserve this. You can stop eating sugar again tomorrow. Your self worth is not dependent on what you eat; go easy on yourself. And my favorite – There’s probably less sugar in these than in a banana!
I was trying really, really hard to justify why I could eat the granola bars, when I know full well that sugar is not my friend. I really wanted to eat the damn things!
But…. I paused.
I stopped rooting through the pantry, closed the door, and looked within. I asked myself, “Oh, sweetheart. What’s really going on?” I realized that what I really needed wasn’t food, but a good cry. And a nap. My husband and I had just moved our family 1700 miles across the country – yep, U-Haul, pets in the crates, huge garage sale, driving for four days, the minivan and all – from Montana to Austin. We arrived in what felt like a completely different world, in record 110 degree heat, in a huge, huge transition.
In short, I was feeling completely discombobulated, exhausted, and extremely uncomfortable. I had gotten lost every single one of the 6 days we’d been in Austin so far; I was rushed to get my kids registered for school; my house was in turmoil – boxes EVERYwhere – and my daily routines – everything that felt normal and comfortable – were gone.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. When I looked inside and felt all this discomfort – the ouch of moving and starting over – I noticed how much I was judging myself for it. The pain itself wasn’t so bad, but my judgment of it – you shouldn’t be so upset, this shouldn’t bother you; you should go with the flow; this isn’t that big of a deal; you should be handling this better (do you hear all the shoulds?) were what made me feel so inside out.
So I’d wanted to eat my way out of this pain. Hence my granola bar wrestling match.
Instead, I fetched a box of tissues, shut the bedroom door and let myself grieve for all I’d lost in the move (oh, how I missed my walks in the Montana quiet!) and all that felt familiar. I let myself feel all my feelings instead of running from them, judging them or telling myself I shouldn’t feel that way. I rubbed my arms and even gave myself a hug and told myself over and over, “I know, I know sweetheart. It’s so uncomfortable right now!” And then, “You can do this.”
I cried and napped and woke up feeling better. The relief came from dropping my self judgment; stopping the war about feeling scared, lost, sad, anxious and uncomfortable. I just let them be. And stopped the war.
I didn’t need to eat to care for my feelings anymore. I dropped the fork, too. (Or in my case, the granola bar.)
Then I wept because it was so beautiful.
So, my beloved, this is what I’m inviting you to try – just try it, just once – to feel life’s ouches without the food buffer. It takes a brave heart – which we all have – and a willingness to sit in the hot seat – which we all can do. I think you’ll be surprised at what you find.
The bogeyman at the door – our emotions – is a princess in disguise, as Rilke wrote. It’s something “precious that wants our love.” Oh beloved, love it. Love your tender humanity. Care for your hurts. Feel your feelings and let them flow. They aren’t the monster we fear they’re going to be.
Trust, dear one. Trust that your heart is big enough; trust that it can care for whatever strong emotion ails you. Trust that you are enough. And let me know what you find, when you open your heart and stand with the door wide open.
Everything you need is inside.
Everything waits, in this very moment, for you.